Thoughts and Musings on the Comedy part of Comedy Magic.
On Sunday I had the good fortune to be able to attend Mitzi Shore’s birthday party. It was held in her gorgeous hillside home and was attended by a group of comedians ranging from the very famous to the newest ‘Young Turks’ from the Comedy Store. I was delighted to be in the company of Jeff ‘Big Daddy’ Wayne whose skill, tact and diplomacy have earned him a very special place in the heart of comedy. For those of you who are not familiar with the Comedy Store it has been the training ground for most of Los Angeles’ top comedians. Mitzi has ruled her domain with a combination of instinct and judgement that have nurtured comedians in a very special way. They were actually trained! Trained in front of tough audiences who expected the very best from their comedians.
Unlike the Magic Castle, the ‘Store’ gave it’s top ranking performers to work a short set once or maybe twice a week. You never knew whether you might be following Robin Williams, Richard Pryor or a new promising comedian from Idaho. It trained comedians in a very special way because their chief goal was to fine tune a five minute set and polish it like a gem for that Tonight Show set that might (or might not) be round the next corner. However, nothing was allowed to stagnate and everyone was expected to develop new material. I always say that when a comedian gets the timing, reaction and delivery of a joke just right—–then he drops it from his act. A variety performer when he reaches that same point with a ‘bit’ or gag, heaves a sigh of relief and it remains in his act f-o-r-e-v-e-r!
While I did perform at the Comedy Store, it was never a true home for me in the way that the Castle was. The magic Castle allowed you the ‘luxury’ of performing your show 21 times within a 7 day period. You would think that this would lead a performer to experimenting on a night by night, if not show by show basis. I have been visiting the Castle more recently than at any other time in 25 years since I stopped working there. With a handful of exceptions I am amazed by how static the performers material has been. It is as if performers expect to be congratulated because the act is still as good as it was last time!
When I stopped performing at the Castle, I went on the road and headlined in Comedy Clubs across the country. One week was New Jersey, the next Atlanta and then on to Alaska. This meant that you really needed to be able to judge the mood of the crowd or be prepared to die the proverbial death. You try treating a late night night audience in a New York club like a mid-week audience in Greenville N.C. and you are ready for the shock of your life, and not a pleasant one. You suddenly realize why real comedians are always scribbling in notebooks and tape recording their sets, it is how they improve and develop. The path to perfection (impossible of course) is to live up to the real message of Charles Darwin, which was not the often misquoted ‘survival of the fittest,’ but the survival of the most adaptable.
At the very least a Comedy Magician should throw away his dependance on ‘patter,’ joke books, Robert Orben and ‘heckler stoppers.’ Even a newbie comic will hold you in disrespect when you do the same trick with the same patter that the magician they worked with the week before did. That is their definition of a hack, and in the comedy world that is not a place you want to be. Obviously there are similar themes in comedy such as relationships, traveling, childhood, etc. just as in magic there are similarly themed effects; The destroyed and restored whatever or the vanishing/appearing this or that. Just as in comedy jokes riff of other jokes, in magic tricks develop around other tricks. However, you can’t let them remain static. I have featured a burnt and restored banknote in my act for years, but it has been a never ending series of both small and larger changes that has kept it relevant.
If you are going to perform Comedy Magic, and not just be a magician who gets laughs, then you need to combine the tough love competitiveness of the Comedy Store with the cheerful glow of the Castle where people laugh at something because they know it is supposed to be funny instead of because it IS funny. Being a comic magician is kinda’ taking the easy way out, if you want to really stretch a little (and improve your chances of working and making bigger bucks) then work at becoming a Comedian Magician, either that or keep well away from real comedians who understand the difference.
Happy Birthday Mitzi! I really wish I had worked harder to become a true Comedy Store regular. It would have probably taught me in a year what it took 11 on the road to learn.